Slavic liquid metathesis and pleophony

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Slavic liquid metathesis refers to the historical phenomenon of metathesis of liquid consonants occurring in the Common Slavic period in the South Slavic and West Slavic (specifically Czecho-Slovak) area. The closely related corresponding phenomenon of pleophony (also known as polnoglasie or full vocalization) occurred in parallel in the East Slavic languages. The change acted on syllables in which the Proto-Slavic liquid consonants *r and *l occurred in a coda position. The result of the change is dependent upon the phonological environment and accents, and varies among the Slavic languages; see below for details.

The change has been dated to the second half of the eighth century, before any Slavic languages were recorded in writing. Therefore, the change itself cannot be observed, but it can be inferred by comparing words in different Slavic languages. Evidence of the earlier state of affairs is also preserved in loanwords into and from early Slavic, as well as in cognates in other Indo-European languages, particularly in the Baltic branch.


Environments of eliminated liquid codas
Traditional Schenker Holzer

During the Common Slavic period, a tendency known as the law of open syllables led to a series of changes that completely eliminated closed syllables. This was evident in Old Church Slavonic, which had no closed syllables at all: every syllable ended in a vowel. Some of these changes included the monophthongization of diphthongs, loss of word-final consonants (e.g. OCS nebo < PIE *nébʰos), simplification of some medial consonant clusters (e.g. OCS tonǫti < *topnǫti etc.) and the formation of the nasal vowels *ǫ and *ę from *am/*an and *em/*en respectively.

The change discussed here is part of this process, and involved liquid consonants (grouped under the cover symbol R) *l or *r in a coda position, in environments which are traditionally designated as shown in table on the right. The application of the law of open syllables in such environments had different results in different Slavic dialects, and in fact presents some of the earliest evidence for differentiation into the multitude of Slavic languages. In some it manifested as the metathesis of a sequence of a liquid consonants followed by a vowel, whereas in others it manifested as an insertion of another vowel. In most cases, the effect was to eliminate the syllable-final consonants *l and *r so that the law of open syllables was maintained.

Reflexes in Slavic languages[edit]



In this environment, metathesis occurred in all Slavic dialects. In South Slavic dialects (Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Bulgarian), as well in Czech and Slovak, the metathesized vowel are lengthened as well. In East Slavic and the Lechitic branch of West Slavic the outcome is dependent upon the Proto-Slavic accent: in acuted syllables the output was the same as in South Slavic and Czech-Slovak, whereas on circumflexed syllables the metathesized vowel did not lengthen.

Area Acuted syllable Circumflexed syllable
Traditional Schenker/Holzer Traditional Schenker/Holzer
South Slavic, Czech and Slovak CS *oRT > CS *raT PSl. *aRC > PSl. *RāC > CS *RaC CS *oRT > CS *raT PSl. *aRC > PSl. *RāC > CS *RaC
North Slavic CS *oRT > CS *roT PSl. *aRC > PSl. *RaC > CS *RoC
PSl. = Proto-Slavic proper, i.e. stage before the loss of distinctive vowel length and the change *a > *o
CS = Common Slavic, i.e. Late Proto-Slavic, the last recontructable ancestor of all Slavic languages

Compare the following reflexes:

Accent Proto-Slavic reconstruction South Slavic, Czech and Slovak North Slavic
OCS Slovene Serbo-Croatian Bulgarian Macedonian Czech Slovak Russian Belarusian Ukrainian Polish Low. Sorbian Upp. Sorbian
Acute PSl. *ardla > CS *őrdlo "plough" ralo rálo rȁlo / ра̏ло ра́ло (rálo) рало (ralo) rádlo radlo ра́ло (rálo) ра́ла (rála) ра́ло (rálo) radło radło radło
Circumflex PSl. *arstu > CS *orstъ "growth" rastŭ rȃst rȃst / ра̑ст ръст (răst) раст (rast) růst rast рост (rost) рост (rost) ріст (rist) wzrost róst

If the syllable was not acuted, metathesis in West and East Slavic occurs without the lengthening so EPSl. *a retains short quantity and yields /o/; compare EPSl. *ȃlkuti ('elbow') > Serbo-Croatian lȃkat, but Czech loket.

TeRT and ToRT[edit]

Word-medially, on the other hand, there are three primary types of outcomes:

  1. In Czech, Slovak and South Slavic, metathesis occurred with lengthening: Proto-Slavic (PS) CeRC CaRC > CRēC CRāC > Common Slavic (CS) CRěC CRaC.
  2. In the rest of West Slavic, metathesis occurred but without lengthening: PS CeRC CaRC > CReC CRaC > CS CReC CRoC.
  3. In East Slavic, a vowel was inserted to break up the RC sequence (so-called pleophony): PS CeRC CaRC > CeReC CaRaC > CS CeReC CoRoC.

As a result of dialect-specific changes occurring before and after the cluster resolution (i.e. metathesis/pleophony), the outcomes in various languages are diverse and complex. For example, in North-West Lechitic (northern Kashubian, Slovincian, Pomeranian and Polabian) and East Slavic, *CalC and *CelC merged into *CalC prior to cluster resolution.


  • In Polish and Sorbian languages metathesis without lengthening occurs; compare Polish brzeg, mleko, groch, młot as opposed to OCS brěgъ, mlěko, Slovene gràh, OCS mlatъ.
  • In North-West Lechitic *CalC and *CelC yield ClŭC (Polabian glåvă ‘head’, å < ъ), *CerC > CreC (without lengthening, as in Polish), while in *CarC, ar becomes ŭr, just like word-initially under acute (Polabian råmą ‘arm’ < *rъmę < *armę), but does not undergo metathesis. Compare Polabian porsą to Slovene prasè and Pomerian gard (often in toponymics, e.g. Białogard and similar) to OCS gradъ (note that unchanged ar in *gardŭ would have given or in Pomeranian).
  • In Czecho-Slovak word-medial metathesis occurs with the lengthening, just as in South Slavic; compare Czech mlat, hrách to Polish młot, groch with /o/ inside.
  • East Slavic languages have pleophonic *CarC > CoroC, *CerC > CereC, and *CalC/*CelC > ColoC; compare Russian górod, béreg, mólot, molokó.

TьRT and TъRT[edit]

Complete and incomplete, first and the second metathesis[edit]

If one considers the liquid metathesis complete only under the condition that it occurs with the corresponding vowel lengthening, then the complete metathesis occurs only in South Slavic, partially Slovak and in non-word-initial position in the whole Czecho-Slovak area. The complete metathesis has been operational in all Slavic languages under the acuted syllable. Under the word-initial non-acuted syllable there was no lengthening except in South Slavic and partially Slovak. As it was mentioned, word-medially the complete metathesis occurred, besides in South Slavic, in Czecho-Slovak group; in Polish and Sorbian it operated without lengthening, and in North-West Lechitic it didn't operate even in the case of *CarC syllables (otherwise the incomplete metathesis occurred - without the lengthening). In East Slavic languages pleophony yielded *CVRC > CVRVC. The reflex of *l in North-West Lechitic and East Slavic is always "hard".

Since the reflexes of acuted word-initial *ar- and *al- have been the same in all Slavic dialects, the change of acuted *ar-, *al- must have preceded the change of other syllables closed by a liquid, where the reflexes are different.[1] So one can distinguish the first and the second metathesis of liquids.


With Slavic evidence alone, the change cannot be dated precisely because no Slavic languages were committed to writing at the time. However, words may have been documented in the non-Slavic languages of the same time period, and words may also have been borrowed into Slavic from other languages. This makes it possible to narrow down the time at which the change occurred.

The liquid metathesis occurred in the Common Slavic era. It either took place after, or was still productive until, the end of the 8th century. This is because the name of Frankish ruler Charlemagne (who died in 814) underwent this change:

On the other hand, the change is already shown completed in the earliest Old Church Slavonic documents. This implies that the change was completed, at least in the dialects of Bulgaria and Macedonia, no later than the 9th century, when these documents were written.

There are also glosses of Slavic words in foreign-language sources. Earlier sources show no effect of liquid metathesis, such as when the late 8th century Greek chronicler Theophanes writes Slavic names as Ἀρδάγαστος (Ardágastos) and Δαργαμηρός (Dargamērós). Old Church Slavonic versions of these names, with the metathesis applied, would be Radogostъ and Dragoměrъ. Liquid metathesis is also seen in various borrowings preserved in toponymics; Latin Arba > Serbo-Croatian Rȃb, Latin Albōna > Serbo-Croatian Làbīn, Latin Scardōna > Serbo-Croatian Skràdīn etc.


It has been suggested[2] that East Slavic preserved the actual state of affairs, i.e. that the vowel was inserted in Common Slavic period, and only subsequently it was lost in all dialects except in East Slavic, in a position preceding the liquid. So the exact development would be, e.g. in case of Serbo-Croatian:

  • PSl. *bardā 'beard' > *Common Slavic *baradā (*boroda) > *baradā (*boroda)[correct?] > SCr. bráda

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Note that karl – which is not only a proper name, but also a common noun with the meaning "adult male" – is a normalized form based on the Old East Franconian dialect. The common noun is also attested as charal in Old Upper German, i. e., with an epenthetic vowel, for example in the Old Alemannic rendering of the Rule of Saint Benedict; this may be the origin of the intrusive vowel in Carolus, the Latinised version of the name, but the Slavic process seems to be unconnected.
  2. ^ The rendering of OHG l as PSl. *lj is regular; the reason is that PSl. plain *l was dark, while OHG l was a normal [l], which was identified with the PSl. palatalised liquid *lj.


  1. ^ Holzer 2007:55-56
  2. ^ Matasović 2008:150

Further reading[edit]